The snow had grown deeper since the night before, and Elrond led his guest down pathways few had trod that morning. One path led to a closed gate behind the ruins of the burned stable - ruins that both Legolas and Elrond tried to avoid looking at, lest they see too much death among the blackened and still-smoking wood that once offered safe shelter to loyal friends within.

"You'll be doing much coughing today," Elrond offered after Legolas had surrendered to the paroxysmal fit threatening his every breath in the cold air.

"It's disgusting."

"It is necessary," Elrond admonished. "The black phlegm must be expelled, else greater illness will follow. Come, we'll go more slowly to accommodate your malady."

Wheezing on his way, Legolas had to pause twice more to accommodate his lungs. "I hate this."

"I know you do. Look, the new stable is being erected over there." The elf-lord pointed to distract the slighter elf at his side. "A few walls are already in place, and that is where we are headed. I am shamed to admit that Imladris had no plan in case of such a fire. A meeting will be held after the stable is completed to form such a plan - who will enter if there is another fire and get them safely out, where they will be taken afterward."

"That's good, albeit a bit late for those who died." Legolas was horrified to realize he'd let down his guard enough to voice his thoughts aloud. "I am sorry, my lord Elrond. I spoke in haste and tactlessly."

"But with great honesty, reflecting my own judgment of my own incompetence." That long arm snaked around Legolas's shoulders once more.

Legolas didn't know how to reply to that assessment, much less how to respond to the touch that seemed to creep out whenever Elrond thought reassurance or comfort was needed. Falling into a wheezing silence, Legolas ignored his confusion and concentrated on reaching the half-constructed stables without coughing his lungs out again on the way.

Elrond released him only when they had reached the construction site. Hailing Glorfindel, he went immediately to the temporary paddock housing the smallest of the fire's victims. The weanlings watched their approach with little of the usual bright curiosity of foals, their expressions reflecting exhaustion and confusion at the turmoil that hat turned their young lives upside down the night before.

"How are they?" Elrond asked, low and urgent. Legolas stood close at his side, no less eager for Glorfindel's update.

"Last spring's foals are lowest to the ground; they are mostly all right," Glorfindel revealed. "The biddable mares I saved are also mostly all right. As for the stallions and the geldings..." He grimaced. "Many are not so all right. I'm sorry, Elrond, but the smoke took those sections first so that their exposure was longer and the damage is greater."

Glorfindel turned his attention to Legolas. "None of us could know this and you could not have prevented it, young one, so don't even try to presume any guilt over those we're bound to lose over the next few days, hmm?"

"We, all of us, did our best," said Elrond sadly. Legolas could have sworn the elf-lord was leaning into him, was trying to offer the same sort of physical comfort as could be seen between two horse-friends.

[Surely that's my imagination. Perhaps he only needs the contact as Glorfindel shares the worst of the news?]

"Go on," Elrond said quietly.

"Some are coughing already, and the outlook is hopeless," Glorfindel continued with obvious reluctance. "We're sending them on over the next hour."

"What of Assassin?"

Glorfindel was silent for a long moment. "I think you need to see him for yourself."

Breaking away from the fence, he led the way to a corner of the new stable, where a stall had been hastily erected and a rough-plank roof offered some shelter from the wind and the snow. Joining Elrond and Glorfindel at the stable wall, Legolas looked inside to see Elrond's foundation sire standing and coughing with his head held low.

"Not you, too," Elrond murmured.

This time, it was Legolas who sought to offer some comfort by leaning into Elrond. The gesture went unnoticed as the elf-lord quickly unlatched the door and stepped inside the stall. Turning toward his owner, Assassin stretched out his neck and nuzzled Elrond's hand. Long fingers rubbed the velvet muzzle, combed through the long white mane and rubbed at the lop-sided ears where they hung lax in exhaustion.

The stallion closed his eyes, surrendering his brief pose of strength as his breathing only grew more labored. His panting efforts to breathe rocked his entire frame forward and back with the fight to draw air into closing lungs. When he coughed again, thick black snot dripped from his nostrils. He was far from the fierce, fighting creature Legolas had met the night before.

"He is proud, Elrond, and very ill. You know that this is only the beginning. I recommend...."

"You recommend that we remember him as he was and send him on with dignity before none is left to him," Elrond said, his expression tight and pained as he gave voice to the words Glorfindel could not bring himself to speak.


[We are not having this,] Legolas thought.

"Excuse me, Lord Glorfindel," he rasped. Pushing past the Elf, Legolas let himself into the stall. Coming up beside Elrond, he combed through Assassin's mane to find Elrond's fingers. Wrapping his own around them, Legolas pulled the elf-lord's hands free and turned him away from the stallion.

"Explain this to me," Legolas murmured, demanding that the elf-lord focus on him, rather than on Elrond's own despair. "Make me understand the damage, so that a way might be found to repair it."

He heard Glorfindel's deep sigh and felt rather than saw him move away from the stall. [You've given up and so yes, you need to leave. Leave the two of us together and let me center your lord by discussing the facts,] thought Legolas. [Let Elrond detach a little and think like a healer for a moment, rather than as Assassin's friend.]

Choking down his tears, Elrond struggled to gather his words and answer. "The fire-smoke was hot enough to burn Assassin's throat and airways, just as it did yours. He and some of the others were in the fire longer than were you, which has resulted in serious breathing problems."

"What problems?"

"Assassin is not burned, though others probably are. Glorfindel has gone to put them down. As for my stallion, he is in severe respiratory distress; there is already upper airway obstruction."

The elf-lord tried to turn back to his friend. Catching his arm, Legolas guided him back around.

"In simple words, Elrond, what does that mean?"

"Assassin is experiencing the same thing you are, but to a greater degree. His airways cannot work properly to sweep dust, debris, and excess mucus from his lungs. Consequently, it has accumulated in his respiratory tract. While you are expelling it, Assassin is not.

"Additionally, the natural lubricant that normally keeps the sides of his lungs from sticking together and collapsing has been compromised, which means his lungs may collapse. Already, it is difficult for him to breathe. He is choking and his lungs are probably filling with fluid."

Legolas closed his eyes briefly at the description of the horse's suffering, feeling it mirrored in his own burning lungs. The harsh bark of Assassin's cough struck him almost as a physical blow.

A heavy hand smoothed down Legolas's hair. From somewhere deep within, Elrond summoned a sad smile. "As Glorfindel said, the outlook is hopeless."

"Not for this one, it's not."

"It is not your fault you couldn't save them all, and Assassin was the last to come out."

Legolas narrowed his eyes. "Do you want to send him on?"


"Then don't give up on him yet," Legolas pleaded. "He waited for me, he wouldn't leave his stall without me. I survived because he carried me. He deserves to live."

"He cannot live if he cannot breathe!"

Legolas's lungs claimed him in a coughing fit, one that drove him to the far corner of the stall to spit a disgusting mess into the bedding. Bracing his head against the wall and wheezing slightly, he said with quiet obstinacy, "Then we shall have to ensure that Assassin and the others continue to breathe."

Coming up beside him, Elrond rubbed his back. "Your ribs must ache already."

"They do, but my breathing is improving, thanks to your skill as a healer. Assassin and I suffered the fire together, suffered the same injuries. If you can heal my lungs, why not his? Treat him as you have treated me. That--that balrog piss has already started working for me; it's worth trying with him, isn't it? Give him that chance."

Elrond stood silently for a moment, then lifted his head to meet Legolas's intense gaze. The despair was being slowly replaced with determination as he nodded. "We will give him his chance. We shall work together, you and I, to save Assassin and the others."

"Yes, together," Legolas rasped, pushing away from the wall. "We should move them somewhere warmer, out of the cold until the stable is finished. The cold air makes it much harder to breathe. Fire up as many braziers as the households of Imladris can spare and treat everyone with balrog piss."

Elrond laughed in spite of himself. "The Hall of Fire might accommodate such an invasion."

Legolas looked up in surprised. "You would do that? You would take them indoors?"

"There will be a fuss from the Elves serving my household, but yes, it's the best place for them. As you say, they need warmth and shelter to rest. I shall command it, and all of Imladris will obey," Elrond concluded, only half-joking.

Legolas nodded and fought off another coughing fit as he followed Elrond from the stall. The orders were given and Legolas had the pleasure of seeing Glorfindel grin and nod at him.

[Well done,] that nod seemed to say, regardless many of the Elves scurrying to help looked as if they thought their master had gone mad.

"Into the Hall of Fire with the lot of them," Glorfindel agreed. "We'll get a fire blazing on the hearth and round up the necessary braziers and cauldrons. I'll see to boiling water for steam while you prepare a vast amount of that evil herbal concoction."

Elrond looked down at Legolas. "Will you help Glorfindel move the horses while I begin the brew to ease their breathing?"

"Of course."

Elrond left the makeshift stable while Legolas moved toward Assassin's stall. Without thinking, he left the door open and stepped within to wind his fingers in the stallion's mane.

"Will you walk with me to a place of warmth and healing? One that smells like your master, where he will always be near?"

The stallion lifted his head from where it hung near the straw, and his eyes lost some of the glassy look they'd had only moments before as he turned to touch Legolas's arm with his black-streaked, mucus-coated muzzle. The elf paused to wipe some of it away with his fingers, scraping it off into the bedding.

"We will heal this," he murmured reassuringly to the horse. "Your master knows what to do. He'll make it better. Be strong."

"Here now, what do you think you're doing?" asked one of the grooms, darting into the stall after Legolas. "No one but Elrond can handle him without a fight. Sick or no, it'll take four of us just to battle him out of here."

The stallion's ears flattened. Legolas let go the mane a moment before Assassin lunged and snapped his teeth at the groom, who leaped backward out of the stall. A colorful stream of Elvish curses blued the air as the groom landed on his butt. Backing up a step, Assassin leaned against Legolas and blinked with deceptive passivism.

"He annoyed me, too," Legolas said softly. Gathering another handful of mane, he asked, "Walk with me?"

Assassin not only found the strength to walk, he led the way from the stall.

"You might want to get out of the way," Legolas said mildly to the groom who was now kneeling in the dirt and rubbing his butt. Scrambling to his feet, the elf all but leaped around the makeshift stall to relative safety.

Pushing against Assassin's shoulder, Legolas guided him slowly across the field, through the open gate with Glorfindel standing watchfully aside, and down the same path Elrond and he had traveled earlier that morning.

"Where is the Hall of Fire, exactly?" Legolas called over his shoulder.

"Turn right and take the walled path back to the main courtyard," Glorfindel called from behind. "We'll take them all in through the front door, down the central corridor and into the hall proper."

So it was that Legolas Thranduilion, Prince of Mirkwood, led Elrond's foundation stallion through the front door of the Last Homely House just as Mithrandir was descending its interior stairway in search of his late-morning meal. Stopping dead on the stairs, the wizard gawked. Stallion hooves rang on the entry stones.

Legolas smiled but did not stop. "Good morning, Mith. Did you sleep well?"

"I... er...." It took a moment, but the gray wizard finally managed to recover himself enough to gather his robes, descend the steps, and join Legolas as he and Assassin gained the long corridor. "What, by all of Valinor, are you doing?"

"We're treating the injured in the Hall of Fire."

Assassin spared this new arrival a brief glance, then cleared his nostrils with a powerful snort, spraying the shining floor of the halls with black mucus before turning to wipe his nose on Legolas's tunic.

"Surely not. Does Lord Elrond know you're mucking up his corridors?"

"I know all about it." Elrond pushed back the huge ash doors leading into the Hall of Fire. "Tell Erestor we need more water," he ordered the obviously disgruntled house-elf hovering behind him.

"Good morning, by the way," he addressed Mithrandir. "It's good to see you up and about." To Legolas he said, "Take Assassin over there, by the fireplace where the kettles are boiling. We are heating the balrog piss--" "WHAT?" Mithrandir all but roared.

"It's a long story, I'll tell you later," inserted Legolas. Already, he could smell the herbal concoction, feel its oils being carried on the air and beginning to work on his lungs.

"It's heating," Elrond resumed and ignored the wizard, "and the kitchen is preparing bran mash for all those who are well enough to eat. Others are bringing hay and water buckets, and we're fashioning plank screens to make temporary stalls, but in the meantime I believe we can use the banquet tables, and... you and Glorfindel must tell me if I've forgotten anything."

"We will," inserted Glorfindel.

"I'll take him from here," Elrond said, moving in behind Legolas and smoothing a hand down Assassin's neck. Both horse and elf clearly drew comfort from the touch, and they moved slowly, silently toward the corner closest the hearth and its healing contents.

Mithrandir sidled up beside Legolas as Elrond began examining his horse in earnest. Grooms waited nearby with their charges as more horses were lead into the hall.

"So the two of you have not only met formally, but are working together." The wizard beamed. "That is well."

"I suppose you're right." Legolas pulled at the end of a heavy table. "Help me with this, please? We don't want any mishaps with Assassin."

"Of course, though I doubt he feels well enough to rear and attack anyone."

Legolas spared him a quick grin. "I wouldn't make that sort of assumption."

Glorfindel grabbed the end of another table. "Despite our best efforts, you know we'll lose some."

"We have to try."

"Even if Assassin recovers, it probably won't be completely," the older elf warned as Mithrandir stood by. "Still, that stallion would probably be contented to sire many foals."

"That's enough, isn't it? Just having him live and be comfortable?"

"Elrond would be contented with just having Assassin in Middle-earth, to pamper him all of his days."

"I'm glad you think so," Legolas murmured. He started to help Glorfindel with the table, only to hesitate. "Pardon me for a moment, please? Elrond's herbs do their work too well."

Moving to a brazier, he took the time to cough and spit under Glorfindel's watchful eye.

"Why aren't you doing this as well?" he demanded of the elf-lord once he could draw breath without coughing again.

It was Glorfindel's turn to grin. "I got a head start on you and did it all night long in the privacy of my own quarters."

Other horses were being led into the hall now. Mithrandir got well out of the way while both elves went to help settle and tend them.

"Some look just fine, don't they?" Glorfindel commented. "No wheezing, no coughing. But we can't assume that no damage has been done. It's insidious enough to show up later, so we'll treat them anyway."

"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Legolas rasped before breaking away to cough again.

"There's a good warriors' attitude," Glorfindel muttered as he dragged another table across the floor.

Elrond was busying himself with treating other horses, so barring any specific orders Legolas went wherever he saw he was needed. The hours fled by as all settled into a rhythm: keep everyone warm, keep the air moist, use the ready supply of herbs and the braziers, refill the boiling cauldrons and kettles of water, take the patients for walks, and urge the house-elfs to continue cleaning up after them. A lot. Legolas soon approached Erestor with a request that minders be posted with buckets and shovels.

"Pick up the manure once the horse moves away. If you see him start to spread, head in with your bucket," he told one timid elf, who seemed more than a little reluctant to do her job.

"Head in?where?"

"Under his belly," Legolas snapped, gesturing vaguely to the horse's sheath.

"I'm not a stable-groom," she protested. "I'm a house-elf! I've no idea how horses?do things.

"He's male, and he pees like any other male. The source should be no great mystery to you."

The newly recruited groom drew herself up at the obvious insult, then shoved the bucket at Legolas.

"You know so much about it, *you* catch it. You're clearly accustomed to handling such muck."

"It's in the house. It's yours," Legolas pointed out, ignoring the bucket altogether. "You can either catch it in a bucket or mop it up after. I really don't care which, so long as the area is kept clean around the horses."

"But horses in the Hall of Fire - horses dumping in the Hall of Fire - it's a disgrace!"

"It's necessary," said Legolas, pointing out a small pile. "You need to attend to that."

The elf did so, chasing the manure awkwardly around the floor with her shovel before capturing it. She then transferred it to a basket, displeasure clear through her pursed lips and wrinkled nose. "How long are they staying?"

"Until the stable is finished."

"Ugh! We'll never be able to eat here again! And where are we supposed to sing? And dance?"

Legolas shrugged. "There's always the rest of Imladris. Urge your friends to work faster on the stable."

"But it's mid-winter, and... and... you have no compassion!" She looked near tears as Legolas pointed out another horse lifting its tail not far from her elbow.

"I do, but it's all for the horses."

"You're... you're disgusting! Who are you, anyway, that you can just walk in here and tell us what to do?" Glowering, she all but threatened him with her shovel.

"He is someone who likes horses," said a new voice, the voice of the Master of Imladris. "There's a stallion spreading now -- off with you."

"Yes, m'lord." The embarrassed elf struggled to control both bucket and shovel as she scampered off to do her master's bidding.

Legolas's eartips were glowing. Again. "I hope I didn't offend--"

"Not at all. The inside elves have always thought their jobs more important than those who serve outside. Horses invading Imladris... it's not been done before. And by the way, I don't think you know what a miracle it is that Assassin carried you from the stable, and that he allowed you to lead him here today."

"Actually, *he* led *me*. Both times."

Elrond nodded understanding. "You would do well to remember his name and its meaning, then. Assassin has never carried anyone in the past but me, nor has he willingly allowed others to lay hands on him, much less walk with him."

"He seems more than merely a horse somehow," Legolas said thoughtfully. "Perhaps he recognized the necessity."

"Necessity does not move Assassin. He will fight to his own detriment if he feels insulted or misused. Affection moves him. Affection he clearly feels for you."

Erestor interrupted them in that moment, relieving Legolas of any need to respond. Indeed, he didn't think he could have responded if he'd had to.

"As ordered, m'lord, I have stayed out of your sight until mid-day meal, which banquet has been arranged for your dining pleasure inside of the library."

"The library?" Elrond looked as incredulous as he sounded. "You've invaded my books with food?"

An unrepentant Erestor gazed back at his master. "You have taken over not only the Hall of Fire, but the great hall with horses. Where else are we to serve you and those who toil to save the animals of which you are so fond?"

"Set up tables in the corridors!" Elrond ordered. "I don't want anything edible near the books."

"Yes, m'lord. Immediately with the next meal, m'lord. I am quite certain they will not mind dining in the hallways where the coughing horses are led about. But plates have already been set out as well as wooden goblets that might be carried for instant refreshment wherever your helpers go. Perhaps everyone would like to partake of the banquet now and save us the trouble of moving everything twice? We have worked hard gather a few tables to accommodate your banquet, but were able to find none for sitting. There seems a great shortage of tables at present." Gazing around the Hall of Fire, the Elf managed to register his disapproval without another word.

Elrond sighed his defeat. "As you will, Erestor. Please let everyone within the halls know that they may take their mid-day meal in the library at their leisure."

"Yes, m'lord, but won't you serve yourself in peace first?"

"Come, Elrond," Mithrandir admonished, sidling up on the elf-lord's elbow. "You know that this fellow will not give it up until our small group has eaten. In truth, you've all been laboring for hours. A small break with a meal seems in order to me."

"As you will," Elrond grumbled again. But he still led the way out of the Hall of Fire and into his beloved, if invaded, library.

"It's revenge, you know?" he said companionably to Legolas, who followed in Mithrandir's wake with Glorfindel. "I have invaded Erestors halls, so he has invaded my beloved books."

"But just as his precious hall may be washed down and restored to its original splendor once we are finished," said Glorfindel, "Erestor will take great care to preserve the sanctity of the mausoleum--"

"The what?"

"Ah, pardon me... the museum Lord Elrond has accumulated over the years."

"Mausoleum? Is that what you think of my preservation efforts? Have you no respect for the history or lore of Middle-earth, even considering the great part you have played in it?"

"I *died*, Elrond. I fail to see how getting a balrog stuck in my golden tresses and being dragged to my doom constitutes any great historical event in your tidy little tomes."

Mithrandir winked at Legolas. "There they go again. You and I shall gather our plates and sneak off to a quiet alcove to enjoy our repast. Those two, in the meantime, will continue one of their incessant debates."

"What do you think of Lord Elrond's library?" Legolas couldn't resist asking.

"Hmm? What? Oh, it comes in very handy when wishes to investigate the really important things - like the history of pipeweed since the beginning of the Shire."

Together they headed for the food laid out beneath the elegant flying buttressed ceiling.


"Did you see Arwen?" Elrond asked as soon as they'd finished eating, in between the dessert and the wine.

"I met with your daughter this morning," Mithrandir replied. "She has agreed to go to Lothlorian with me and will leave as soon as she is ready. Her brothers will join us on the road, so she will be well-protected."

"Good. My daughter has been in seclusion since her mother's death," Elrond offered explanation to Legolas.

"I see," said Legolas. [In seclusion, probably so she won't have to watch her father court his new consort.]

A groom came to the library door at that moment, wanting to consult Lord Elrond and Glorfindel on some detail or other in the horses' care.

"We should get back to the horses," said Legolas, starting to get up from the large and far-too-comfortable chair he'd homesteaded at the beginning of the meal.

"No, let me answer this one's question and then we'll enjoy the peace a few minutes more," said Elrond, standing and patting Legolas's knee. "Join me, please, Glorfindel?"

The elf-lord grumbled a bit, but did as he was bid.

"Are you all right with my leaving you here?" Mithrandir asked the moment the two were out of earshot.

"Nothing will change whether you're here or not," Legolas answered quietly. "I remember your warnings and am behaving accordingly."

The wizard nodded. "You're doing well, he likes you. I have sent word of our safe arrival to your father, and trust that Elrond will send some sort of message himself. What is your first impression?"

"His horses like him, so he's a man of honor at least where they're concerned."

Mithrandir gave a low, delighted laugh. "I suspect that Elrond would say the same of you at this point. Carry on as you have, and I daresay your joining will be less painful than you think."

"I don't want it to be less painful," hissed Legolas as the two elf-lords broke off their discussion and headed back across the library. "I want its necessity to go away."

There wasn't time for Mithrandir to reply, so the wizard sagely remained silent. Slouching in irritation, Legolas stared at the snowflakes falling beyond the library balcony.

[My hand's starting to hurt again,] he realized. [Must have used it too much this morning.] The bandage was soiled as well, he noted. He made a brief effort to scrape at some of the worst of the stains, then abandoned it.

"Just a few minutes more," Glorfindel sighed, sinking back down into his chair and twirling a wine goblet between his fingers. "Then we'll return to battle."

"And so, Mithrandir," said Elrond, pouring himself another glass of wine. Legolas shook his head in a second refusal as the carafe was offered to him. "What news have we from Mirkwood?"

"News? What news are you expecting?"

"You were supposed to bring someone to me yesterday, were you not? Or at least news of him. Is Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, on his way to Imladris?"

Mithrandir looked back at his host in obvious confusion. "He is not. I thought--"

"He is not? I thought he was to arrive forthwith. Has Thranduil decided not to follow through with the agreement?"

The wizard held up a hand to stay the cross words, and shook his head. "I thought you knew...."

"Knew what?"

"Legolas arrived with me last night. Ah, Elbereth, was it only last night? Seems much longer than that. Any road--"

"Then where is he?" Elrond snapped. "I've not heard word of his arrival."

"Legolas is sitting right there next to you." Gesturing shortly, the wizard indicated the blonde Elf sprawled in the chair next to Elrond's own.

Glorfindel abandoned his wine and sat up. Legolas closed his eyes, only to open them again and meet Elrond's astonished gaze head on. [If I'm to meet my doom here in the library of Imladris, I want to see it coming for me. At least there's a fair collection of weaponry about; if he attacks me, am I not entitled to at least attempt to defend myself?]

"You are... certain?" Elrond pursued.

"I've known him since before he was born, of course I'm certain. Legolas, why didn't you introduce yourself?" Not bothering to move or shift position since no courtly bow or other formal gesture could save him now, Legolas offered a weak smile, waggled the fingers of his bandaged hand, and murmured, "It is good to finally meet you, my lord Elrond."

Elrond said nothing for a long moment. He merely stared. "But you... You're not what I envisioned or expected at all."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"You're not a thing like your father!"

Legolas offered a wry smile. "Thank you for the compliment."

"You...thank me for what?"

"Come, Glorfindel," said Mithrandir, rising and stretching his back. "These two need to be alone."

"But I've not finished my wine."

"Yes, you have."

"I want to stay and hear this out."

"No, you don't. It's time for private things between these two and so come along. We'll go see some Elves about some horses."

Legolas didn't think Elrond was even aware of their being left alone. Shifting in his seat as his back was beginning to ache, Legolas sat up and faced his foe directly.

"I said thank you for the compliment because I'm glad to be nothing like my father," he explained. When Elrond didn't respond, but merely kept staring as if in trance, Legolas tried again. "Mithrandir was grinning when he left us. Is that a good sign?"

"I'm...never sure."

"I didn't mean to deceive you. It's just that the horses needed our full attention and you didn't need the distraction any more than they did."

"That's certainly true." The trance seemed to break. Gray eyes raked Legolas from top to toe, much as they had in the bath, but with a gaze even more compelling than it had been then. "You are a surprise, Legolas Thranduilion, but I think you know that."

"I know that you were probably expecting someone like my brother, who is very much like my father. Am I such a disappointment, then?"

Elrond laughed outright at that. "You are far from being a disappointment, Legolas. On the contrary, you are a pleasant surprise. My horses like you. Assassin likes you, which makes you a wondrous miracle come from Mirkwood. I cannot think why I did not ask your name."

"You assumed I was an advance scout, I believe. No name necessary."

"You heard the conversation between Glorfindel and me this morning, then?"

With some reluctance, Legolas nodded. "I didn't intend to listen at the door. Your antechamber is very small, and sound travels very well."

"A fact which Erestor has never seen fit to tell me. Thank you for the warning, Legolas. I shall make him wait in the outside corridor, or down here on the main floor from now on." The smile Elrond offered seemed genuinely warm. "I wish you had at least confided your name to me."

"Had I done so, everything would have changed. Everything will change now, when my presence is announced to your people. Whether I am welcomed by them or not, I will prove a distraction to them. The horses won't have their undivided attention, and they must. But it's not my place to...." He let the sentence trail off, not even certain of what he had wanted to say.

"It's not your place to keep your arrival a secret from my people," Elrond finished for him. "How can you care so deeply for animals that are not your own?"

"If you are kind to a horse, if you respect its needs and know how to enter into its world, that horse will offer you their loyalty and devotion without reservation. It's not Assassin's fault he's been hurt, and it's not his fault I've arrived and might prove the distraction that defeats him in the end." Legolas shook his head. "I don't want that to happen. He saved me, so I suppose I'd like to save him."

"There's more to it than that, I think," Elrond said softly. "I've raised two sons, Legolas, and have counseled many sons of other Elves. I have some instinct where young anxieties are concerned, and while you work comfortably with me around the horses, much tension arises in you the moment we are alone. I do not understand why this should be so."

"I could explain but there isn't time, Lord Elrond. I am here to become your consort, to finalize the alliance between Imladris and Mirkwood, but the horses need us. Your people can wait to meet their... prince." He nearly spat the word. "I can wait to meet them, but Assassin and the others cannot wait."

"And you would rather not be known to them just yet."

"No, my Lord Elrond."

"Then we shall call you Lasgalen until such time as your identity can be revealed, until I and all of Imladris can welcome you properly. How is your hand feeling?"

Legolas blinked at the sudden change of subject. "It... aches a bit."

"Then let us divert to my chambers and apply more oils, rewrap it in something a bit cleaner and protect it well before you return to your labors. And please don't use the new bandage to wipe noses."

Moving toward the stairs, Elrond turned back and very nearly stepped on Legolas's toes as he followed obediently him. "I want you to know, I looked forward to your arrival and am glad you are here, Legolas. I only wish the night had been less chaotic when you arrived. That does not mean I am unhappy you were there to save my friends."

"Thank you, my lord."

~ ~ ~

['Thank you, my lord.'] Elrond echoed Legolas's words after they had returned to the Hall of Fire. Legolas stayed at his side and, true to his word Elrond began calling him Lasgalen. Their work with the horses continued as before, its rhythm was uninterrupted except for one thing.

['Thank you, my lord.' A proper, formal response when before I distinctly remember him calling me Elrond. Now, he is tense. Formal. Stilted in my presence, and I have no further answers than before as to the reason why.]

[Legolas sought this alliance along with his father, did he not? If so, then why has he withdrawn into himself? Where is the ferocity he showed in fighting to give Assassin his chance at life? Where is the eagerness one might expect from a new consort?]

[I tend his injured hand... he suffers my touch but does not welcome it. I lean against him, he allows it and sometimes, yes, he leans back, but will not initiate it. He submits to me, but that is only on the surface or when he forgets and is focused elsewhere.]

The afternoon wore on, with Elrond setting aside his concerns as he could to focus on the tasks at hand. Horses were tended in a seamless rhythm of steam, walking, oils and comforting words and rubs amid a chorus of deep, bone- rattling coughs. From time to time, he and Legolas would recheck a horse, lock gazes, and one or the other of them would smile slightly. Sometimes they shook their heads in silent agreement and then Legolas would stand quietly with the suffering animal while Elrond said his good-byes. Once the Lord of Imladris had turned away, Legolas led the horse quietly from his presence, out into the hallway and on to Glorfindel.

It was Glorfindel who took the dying for their last walk. By sunset, a dirty path was worn into the snow, out behind the northwest pasture where the trees blocked the view of the final good-bye.

There were considerably fewer horses inside of the Homely House at the end of the day than there had been at the beginning. Assassin stood with them and while he was not yet out of danger, neither was he any worse. Elrond thought Legolas took courage from that fact, but could not be sure. Where Legolas was concerned, Elrond was certain of nothing, save the determination that seemed to radiate from him.

[Nothing,] thought Elrond, watching Legolas start the trek to hand over a sweet little mare to Glorfindel, but not until he'd whispered his own good-bye into the velvet ear.

Her eyes were wide with her panicked struggle to draw air into failing lungs, her chin thrust forward and nostrils flaring widely as she panted hard enough to rock her body forward and back as she fought. She was suffering and frightened, and there was only one thing left to be done for her. She was a sweet mare, a good mother, and a loyal and courageous mount in her day. She would be deeply missed by all who knew her, and evidently by those who had only just met her as well.

[How quickly Legolas comes to care for those who are helpless in our hands,] thought Elrond, [even as his father would take advantage of those helpless in his own hands. Helpless....]

Elrond watched as the mare was guided out of the hall and toward the main doors. Her steps were slow and tremulous, and Legolas steadied her with comforting hands as he kept up a litany of promises - promises of peace and comfort and the ending of her pain.

The high whinny of the mare's last foal - only lately weaned - followed her in a plaintive call. Her head lifted in recognition, but she had no strength to answer with anything but a silent farewell that barely caused her nostrils to flutter before another cough nearly took her off of her feet. Quick hands and an Elven body against her side steadied her, and then they moved forward once more.

The misery in the young elf's expression showed clearly as they moved past Elrond for that long, sad walk, and the foal called for his mother once more.

[There are so many in pain today, so many innocent ones suffering,] Elrond noted bitterly. Narrowing his gaze, the elf-lord turned away and returned to the Hall of Fire to tend more of his friends and to ponder the strange young Elf who had come none too eagerly to Imladris to be at his side.

Night fell, and Glorfindel offered to take first watch. Elrond let him, washing his hands for the last time and beckoning Legolas to his side. The Elf came, but not willingly. Fatigue was echoed in every bit of his lithe body. His blue eyes were dull and full of death-shadows - something Elrond recognized from his own time in battle. Sliding a hand slowly across the muscled shoulders, Elrond felt Legolas tense. He let his hand fall away.

"Why don't you bathe and then join me for a quiet supper alone in my chambers." It was not a request, and Elrond didn't mean for it to be. It was an expectation, one he knew would be fulfilled.

"Yes, Lord Elrond." The answer was as agreeable as always, but Legolas's shoulders were tense.

Nodding, Elrond left Legolas and went to confer with Glorfindel one last time on the night's treatment for the horses. The supplies were plenty and all was in order, but Elrond used one final check as an excuse to let Legolas slip away, unnoticed, with his head held high as any proud stallion's.

[Things are definitely not as Thranduil presented them to me,] Elrond growled inwardly. [Tonight, I will find out why.]


The feeling of dread in the pit of Legolas's stomach didn't lessen after a two-hour soak in the bathing pool - how could it, when he knew that after supper Elrond would doubtless call upon him to honor the agreement King Thranduil had forged? Tonight, Elrond would want to begin exploring the relationship between them, would expect his new consort to display his eagerness to mate with the Lord of Imladris. No sick horses or related duties would stand between them, they would be alone in Elrond's chambers this night. All night. The invasive touching would begin, and Legolas hoped he could endure it.

If anything, his anxiety grew tenfold when, just as he was about to get out of the water, Erestor strode into the chamber, gathered Legolas's pile of dirty clothes, and announced, "I'll see that these are cleaned and returned to you, Lord Lasgalen."

In a swirl of robes, Elrond's majordomo was gone and Legolas had no chance to object unless he wanted to leap from the water and run naked up the stairs to catch the elf. [Elrond himself probably sent him,] Legolas reflected, [to locate his wayward will-be lover.] Irritation followed hard on the thought. [Why not come himself, if that's the case?]

[Because Elrond probably told Erestor who you really are and trusts him to be discreet?] offered a voice inside his head. [Because the Lord of Imladris is eager for your company, but does not wish to appear so, as your identity is not common knowledge, and Elrond wishes to prevent the entire household from seeing him check up on a common wood-Elf from Mirkwood?]

Legolas snarled silently at the voice within and its logical motivations. [He probably just doesn't want any of his guests running around in dirty leggings. He's already criticized the way I keep my bandages.]

Erestor addressed someone outside the chamber who answered in the high, light voice of a female elf. And then the maidservant was on her way in, ignorantly intent upon destroying Legolas's already shattered sanctuary. He sighed inwardly to see that this was the same elf he'd forced to chase horse droppings only that afternoon. A second encounter, with Legolas naked and vulnerable in the water, was not something he welcomed.

Descending on the bathchamber with much more eagerness than she'd desplayed around the equine muck, the elf carried an armload of towels that obstructed her vision. Walking around the edge of the pool, she was oblivious not only to Legolas, but to the pile of clean clothes he had placed within easy reach at the edge of the pool. Inevitably, her small foot kicked them aside just as Legolas lunged across the pool to save them.

[So much for a warrior's reflexes,] Legolas thought in irritation as water sloshed over the maidservant's feet. His bandaged fingers closed uselessly around his moss-green tunic as it followed his leggings into the water.

"Amin hiraetha -- I'm so sorry!" the maidservant exclaimed, leaping backward and nearly dropping the armful of towels on his head. Peering over them, she widened her eyes to recognize her victim. "You!"


"I should have known!" she spat. "Most people put their clothes on the shelf rather just heaping them on the floor." Whirling, she shoved the towels onto the ledge encircling the pool.

"Most people look where they're going," he rejoined, slapping his dripping clothing onto the stone edge.

"I didn't wet your things on purpose!"

"I didn't say you did."

She stared resentfully at the sodden pile. "I suppose you'll want me to dry your things in the kitchen."

"The tunic is leather, it belongs nowhere near a fire."

"Fine! Then you can please yourself and dry them yourself." She glowered in open hostility. "I didn't know you were in here. Erestor didn't mention--"

"It doesn't matter." Her tone was starting to make his head hurt. "If you'll just hand me a towel, I'll take care of my own things."

Snatching up a towel, she shoved it at him, only to nearly fall into the water.

"Careful," Legolas murmured, reflexively laying his his wet-bandaged hand against her thigh to steady her, even as he took the towel with his good hand.

She skidded back like a cat burned on a hot griddle-iron. "Your hand is clammy!"

"The bandages are wet. Again," he commented with no little weariness. "At least Lord Elrond cannot say that I did not keep them clean. Still, he will not be pleased."

"Blame me." She wiped down her leg.

"Blame you for what, Aniviel?" a low, smooth voice intruded. "What have you done to Lord Lasgalen?"

"Just Lasgalen will do."

The maidservant blushed and stammered. "I... he... He didn't put his clothes up safely where he should have, and they've gone into the water."

"Where you accidentally kicked them, I presume?" Erestor leveled a knowing look at the elf. "Please return to the kitchen and deliver the supper tray Lord Elrond has requested be delivered to his chambers. Try not to trip on the way."

"As you will, Erestor" Ducking her head, Aniviel all but slunk out of the bathchamber. Legolas watched her go with no little relief.

"I apologize for her clumsiness, my lord," Erestor continued as Legolas carefully wrapped the towel around himself and headed for the steps leading out of the water. "I shall visit your chamber and retrieve something else for you to wear."

Legolas noted that Erestor watched him emerge from the bath with a glance that wasn't predatory so much as speculative. This was, after all, the Elf that Elrond had been spending a great deal of time with lately, regardless Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood was due any moment to arrive and take his rightful place at Elrond's side. Surely Legolas's trusted scout would no longer be needed when that occurred, either by his master or the Lord of Imladris? Perhaps then Lasgalen of Mirkwood would entertain the possibility of spending a little time with Erestor?

The majordomo's thoughts weren't difficult to read. Legolas had seen the look in other eyes - Elrond's eyes -only a few hours before. He couldn't recall ever having seen such a look in Mirkwood. [Perhaps they were there, but I was as oblivious to them as Aniviel is to her clumsiness.]

Legolas gained the stone terrace surrounding the pool only to discover Erestor was standing so close to him, the elf's breath chilled Legolas's chest. The majordomo's gaze was openly assessing now, and Legolas reached around him smoothly to exchange his very wet towel for a dry one.

"That was my last set of clean things," he said, securing his towel, "and Lord Elrond expects me to join him shortly. Is it possible for me to obtain other clothing?"

Erestor frowned. "Did you not come from Mirkwood, an advance representative for your prince?"

Legolas shrugged. "Of a sort, yes."

"Surely you brought more with you."

"Mithrandir and I left in a bit of a hurry, so little was packed. My first set of clothing was fire-soiled, and you took the second for cleaning a few minutes ago. The third has been drowned."

Erestor offered a bow - an excessive gesture of respect for a mere wood-Elf, but the slender, austere servant made it respectful rather than mocking. "It is unfortunate that Imladris should have so evil an impact upon your wardrobe. Additional garments shall be made immediately from a pattern employing those currently within my possession. In the meantime...." The speculative look was back, but Erestor seemed a bit more focused on service rather than passion this time.

"I would say you about the same height and build as Elrond's sons," Erestor mused. "Elrohir wouldn't mind loaning you a robe or two, especially as he and his brother are off patroling the borders at the moment. I shall return momentarily, my lord."

"Diola lle," Legolas murmured.

"You are most welcome." Scooping up the latest set of ruined clothes, Erestor offered another bow and then was gone.

~ ~ ~

"Lord Elrond," Legolas called out softly. Pulling at the robe puddling around his bare feet, he hovered uneasily in the shadows outside the Elf-lord's bedchamber. Full dark had fallen since he'd been in the baths. He wished he could hide in that darkness, climb the highest tree and stay there until morning when equine duties would call again and their distractions could cloak him further. Several things made such an escape impossible, not the least of which were the voluminous robes he'd been loaned that were so ill-suited to climbing trees.

"Lasgalen," a deep voice acknowledged from within, its owner unseen.

Legolas knew how Elrond would appear: his robes were never ill-fitting, they wouldn't have dared. They always hung beautifully from the Elven lord's broad shoulders, concealed a barrel chest, and were the perfect backdrop for the long, raven-black hair that Legolas had already learned glowed blindingly in sunlight or firelight. Elrond was every inch a noble Elf-lord, no matter Mirkwood's king thought him a half-bred upstart who'd claimed a power and authority upon Gil-Galad's death to which he had no right.

"I've been waiting for you," the warm baritone continued from the shadows. It had commanded armies; tonight, it commanded Legolas. "Please join me, and welcome."

Taking no comfort from his host's welcoming words, Legolas slipped cautiously into the sanctorium and tried to hug the wall. Shadows and light moved on the interior walls - a red-gold mixture of firelight and candlelight offering warmth and security in the dead of winter. He had known such things as a child wrapped safe in his mother's embrace, but she had broken her neck and died during a riding accident when he'd scarce reached his fourteenth birthday. Even after her death, fire had seemed a benevolent element, warming the stones of his underground chamber and accompanying his father's festivities in the Great Hall of Mirkwood. No more, though. Fire had destroyed too many beautiful new friends this day.

[A different sort of flame may well be waiting to destroy me as well,] Legolas thought, rubbing his fingers against the wet bandage guarding the wounded palm of his hand. [I've already been branded. Tonight, I fear being burned in a different way. Still, I agreed to be here, did I not?]

Gathering what little dignity was possible when one was wrapped in ill-fitting robes and dreading a long night that had only just begun, Legolas squared his shoulders, met Lord Elrond's calm gaze, and announced, "This has not been a good day, my lord. But the horses are resting comfortably now."

An elegant black eyebrow arched as Elrond studied the wet-haired, obviously rumpled Elf before him. "You checked on our patients before coming here?"

"I did."

"Is all in order?"

"So far, yes. I would like to check on Assassin and the others again later."

"As would I." Pouring two goblets of mead, Elrond offered one to his guest, who was slowly approaching the table and eyeing his host warily as if either might leap up and attack him. "How is it that you came to traverse Imladris's halls in robes that I believe belong to one of my sons?"

"Aniviel accidentally caused my last clean set of clothing to be tossed into the water," Legolas explained, taking the mead only to set it aside without sampling the contents. "Erestor was kind enough to cover my unwilling nakedness with this." He pulled at the rich material.

"Aniviel..." Elrond offered a wry smile. "That explains much. You two seem fated to irritate each other."

"Perhaps. I was also unable to prevent this from being soaked." He gestured with his injured hand.

"It is past time the bandages were changed again, but they can wait a bit longer." Robes rustling, Elrond seated himself at the table, shoved aside a pile of books and pulled closer a wooden tray stacked with covered plates. "The day has been long and exhausting for us both, and I've waited supper for you. Let us eat before we do anything else."

"You needn't have waited." Even as he thought to deny being hungry, Legolas's stomach growled. Only then was he made aware of the inticing scents coming from the plates. It seemed his body's needs were prepared to overwhelm his anxieties.

"How did you know I would arrive before all became too cold to eat?" Legolas asked, seating himself across from the Elf-lord.

"I asked Erestor to send up food as soon as you emerged from the baths." Elrond passed a plate to Legolas.

[So he was checking up on me,] Legolas thought, somewhat amused even as he was still irritated at the thought. "Erestor came and carried away the old things I was wearing."

"I've known him all of my life and am comfortable with such intrusions; you, however, are probably not."

"He was as tactful as possible, given the circumstances."

Elrond nodded. "You'll find Erestor far more reliable than

Aniviel, and you'll see your clothes again by morning. Rooms are being prepared for you -or, rather, for the arrival of your true self - just through there." Elrond nodded at an all-but-hidden doorway set into a far corner of the room. "They will be ready whenever you wish to reveal your presence to Imladris."

[And in the meantime, am I to sleep with you or in the chamber where I awoke this morning?] Legolas wanted to ask, but dared not. He picked at the food on his plate, his appetite suddenly gone.

"Why did you not arrive with more clothing?" Elrond asked. "Come to that, where is the entourage we were expecting?"

Legolas hesitated before answering, did not look up to meet the Elf-lord's gaze. "I left Mirkwood in a bit of a hurry."

"Were you so eager to reach Imladris, then?"

"You might say that I was..." He chose his words carefully, knowing that the interrogation had begun. "I was eager for the alliance between our two kingdoms to be confirmed."

"Confirmed. I see." Elrond didn't bother hiding his skepticism, and his lengthy silence afterward made Legolas glance up at last. Intense grey eyes held his, commanding him to reveal hidden truths behind the diplomatic phrasing.

Mentally squirming beneath that gaze - which Legolas had no doubt Elrond had used against his sons on occasion and every bit as effectively as he was using it now - Legolas broke away to concentrate on the fascinating pile of demolished food before him. Hopefully, the Elf-lord's interest - or at least his curiosity - would wane in the ongoing silence.

[Even if I win this battle, when he takes me and the bond is established, I will have lost the war. My thoughts will be open to him, up to and including my feelings about my father and this alliance,] Legolas thought in miserable desperation. [Tonight, I would rather be anywhere but here in this chamber with him.]


"You are quiet and tense and painfully polite," Elrond softly broke the silence between them at last. "For all that you must be hungry, you're not eating very much. Nor are you enjoying the wine."

Startled by his host's concerned tone, Legolas snapped up his head and stared at Elrond. Offering a slight smile, the Elf-lord sat back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and stretched out his long legs. He openly studied his prince now, casually ignoring the younger Elf's discomfort.

"I... I don't drink very much." Legolas offered the crumb of personal information in response to Elrond's careful probing. "Wine dulls the senses and slows the reflexes."

"Ah." [I'm not surprised this one doesn't drink very much,] Elrond thought, [given how much his father does.] Snagging a pitcher and a clean ceramic mug from a nearby, smaller table, he poured out a measure of herbal tea and pushed it toward Legolas across the table. "This might be more to your liking."

"Thank you, m'lord." He sipped at it politely, looked startled, and took a longer pull. "It's very good."

Elrond smiled. "I am glad it pleases. I had despaired of anything within Imladris pleasing you - except the horses."

"My lord Elrond, I--"

All but losing patience with the polite dance between them, Elrond held up a hand to stop the protest before it began. "Just Elrond, if you please. If you are finished pushing the food about on your plate, let me see to your hand."

"I do not wish to offend, Lord... Elrond. It's just that I'm not very hungry."

"No?" Elrond arched a disbelieving eyebrow and was rewarded by seeing those delicate pointed eartips going pink again. Still, he had to give the young prince credit; Legolas did not look away this time. "Perhaps you will be hungry later this evening. Or perhaps you will recover your appetite at breakfast tomorrow, once you discover whether I plan to devour you in the night."

Outrage, fury, apprehension... Elrond was ill-put to keep up with the flow of emotions reflected in the smoldering blue eyes meeting his, and deeper hollows appeared beneath Legolas's high cheekbones as he grit his teeth. Much to Elrond's surprise, the look in Legolas's eyes finally settled into weary submission.

"As you will, my lord."

"My lord again, is it?" Sighing, Elrond sat up. "Whatever else your father may have told you about me, I do not seek a weak, submissive mate, Legolas. It's all right to have opinions - you certainly had some valuable ones regarding the care of my horses. For all of that, you seem determined to repress a great deal of yourself around me. The question is... why?"

"My only wish is to please you." The words came from behind a clenched jaw.

"You think that pretending to have no will of your own pleases me? No, don't argue that," Elrond interrupted as Legolas opened his mouth to begin another submissive defense. "I know you are deliberately hiding yourself from me. The question is... why? Is it because of something I've done, something your father has told you, or something else entirely? I have much time to spend with you, Legolas - not only tonight - and sooner or later, I'll find out what you are hiding. In the meantime, I'll leave you safe behind your gentle mask if you'll let me tend your wounded hand."

A look of fury and frustration flashed briefly in Legolas's smoldering blue eyes. With what might have been a low growl, Legolas shoved aside his unfinished dinner, yanked up the sleeve of his robe, and bared his arm before Elrond.

"So much for supper," Elrond commented wryly, "and so much for being submissive. Now, that was an honest reaction and much better than those coming before, don't you think?"


Elrond laughed outright, reveling in the reaction he'd inspired. "Come now, Legolas. I doubt I could force you to let me take care of you."

[You've got that right,] said hostile blue eyes.

"You've a fighter's spirit, my friend, and that won't stay buried, no matter how much you think you want it to." Reaching for his scissors, Elrond cut through the soiled bandages while Legolas said nothing. Laying open the wound, he saw that his patient's long soak in the bath had served to bleach white the burn's angry red welts. Rising from his chair and turning the injured hand, Elrond viewed the injury from a different angle while layering a mixture of lavendar and birch oil over the insulted skin. In growing horror, he realized that while the hand was healing, the scarring was taking on an all-too-familiar shape.

"Is that... Did you...." Reaching for a nearby candlelabra, Elrond thumped it atop a stack of sturdy books and angled the light closer. Grasping Legolas's wrist, he raised the hand and turned the Elf's arm so that he could see the burn more clearly. "Sweet Elbereth, the seal of my House is burned into your skin."

"Is that what it is?" Legolas's droll tone did little to reassure his host: Elrond knew the Elf was still irritated at the earlier confrontation Elrond had instigated. The question now was what would be Legolas's ongoing response to that confrontation? Would the walls thicken around the truth, or was there hope of Elrond's scaling them?

"How did this happen?" Elrond demanded, attacking the first wall as it was presented.

"Your seal was on Assassin's stall door. I was stupid enough to touch it during the fire."

Elrond angled the scar another way. "Everyone who sees this will think that I've already claimed you. Branded you."

"Is that not why I am here?" The question came with deceptive mildness.

"Yes," Elrond agreed absently, his attention riveted on the Seal seared into Legolas's skin. "That is, no! You're not here to join with me in that way, at least. Such was never my intention and... and...."

Still holding onto the Elf's hand, Elrond met the Elf's resentful gaze. "Legolas, I am so terribly sorry. If there were any way to obliterate this, I would do it. But even to try would be to injure you further. The Seal is deep. To attempt to remove it now might cause irreperable nerve damage."

"Will the scarring prevent me holding a bow or wielding a knife?"

"Not when it is fully healed."

"Good. That is all that truly matters." The Elf considered the scarred circle. "It's less red than it was this morning. Is it healing well?"

"Yes, but that's not the point!"

"The scarring cannot be helped," Legolas said reasonably. Elrond was furious to see that the submissive look was back in Legolas's eyes. "I will belong to you in the near future, so the Seal cannot even be called a falsity. You might think of it as an outward sign of our imminent bonding."

A deep sadness that Elrond did not understand underlaid the submissiveness this time - sadness that Elrond instinctively knew he should not target just then. [What are you remembering or thinking, my friend?] He stared at Legolas a long time before silently acknowledging the Elf's capitulation. Bandaging the hand, he trailed his fingers over the concealed branding before gently squeezing Legolas's arm.

"You are healing quickly. Tomorrow night, I think we can dispense with the bandages."

"That is well." Pulling down the sleeve of his robe, Legolas quietly awaited whatever Elrond had in mind next.

Moving across the chamber, Elrond leaned against the arched entrance to the terrace and stared beyond it, into his own private, snow-covered garden. [Things between us are not as they should be, neither as new friends nor as would-be lovers,] he reflected. [While Legolas and I work well together on mundane matters, my efforts this night to meet him one-on-one have been met only with frustration on my part and wariness on his. This prince of Mirkwood obviously does not desire the union his father has offered. The question is... why not?]

"I have something that I think you need to see." Turning, Elrond retrieved a scroll from the haphazard collection of documents piled on his desk. Handing it over to Legolas, he relayed, "This is the initial communication I received from your father regarding our alliance."

Unwinding the scroll, Legolas examined it. Pulling up a chair, Elrond sat close by and remembered the words on the parchment well enough to know what Legolas read in his father's own hand. 'It grieved me and my family to learn of the loss of your Lady. My younger son, Legolas, has expressed some notion of offering intimate comfort in a way that may be beneficial to both our kingdoms. With his eager permission, I am writing to explore the possibility of joining our two houses in a marriage alliance....'

Elrond watched Legolas's grip on the paper tighten until it crinkled and his knuckles whitened. The Elf's breathing accelerated, his strong jaw locked once more. "My father sent this to you months ago?"

"He did. As you can see," Elrond offered quietly, tapping the scroll Legolas still gripped, "Thranduil led me to believe our union was your own idea."

"It was not." The words were bitten out. "But... as I said before, I am agreeable to it." Flinging aside the scroll, Legolas all but leaped out of his chair to begin pacing the chamber restlessly.

"Agreeable does not mean desiring," Elrond pointed out placidly, watching his companion circle the small chamber like a great, agitated cat.

The cat rounded on him. Balling his fists at his sides, Legolas glowered down at the Elf-lord and all but shook in his rage. "How would you have me behave? What would you have me say and do? I belong to you, am yours to command. Reveal your expectations and I will do my best to comply."

"You do not belong to me, Legolas, certainly not against your will. My expectation is that you will tell me - honestly and clearly - how it is that Thranduil got you to agree to a marriage bond when you so obviously loathe the idea."

"I agreed," the Elf snarled, "that is all that matters."

"No, it is not. I require more."

Legolas gestured shortly with his good hand. "I have nothing more to offer you."

"I think otherwise. You may not have come to Imladris to offer me love, but you can definitely offer information. Tell me what your father did to make you come here?"

The restless pacing began again. "He convinced me of the wisdom of such a bond."

"I am somewhat familiar with Thranduil's arguments. How did he convince you?"

"He made a rebellious, disobedient son see how he could be of use to Mirkwood for the first time in his sorry life." Legolas glanced over his shoulder as he passed, blue eyes flashing.

"Were those the exact words Thranduil used?"

"Does it matter?" Raw pain in the Elf's voice, quickly repressed. "I learned my lesson well, I am here. It does not matter how I was led to agree to this alliance, Lord Elrond. Agree, I did, as did you. We are both bound, and I am ready to honor my commitment to you and to Imladris."

"I would have the truth, Legolas. How did he make you agree?" Patiently, relentlessly, Elrond cycled back to his original inquiry.

"You want truth? I'll give you truth." The words were bitten out. "I daresay that six weeks in a rat-infested cell beneath Mirkwood would make anyone agree to anything." Legolas flung himself into a chair and gnawed on his knuckles as he glowered at the snow falling on Elrond's terrace.

"Sweet Elbereth," the Elf-lord breathed. "Thranduil thrust you beneath those cold stones and kept you there, without light or hope?"

"He did." Legolas shrugged. "But only until I yielded."

"Which took six weeks."

A bark of a laugh. "I am a most obstinate son, my lord. It was not so bad as all that. He fed me enough to keep the rats at bay, and Mithrandir was allowed the occasional visit. Without his watchcare, I would probably still be there."

Elrond's heart ached. He longed to reach out and gather Legolas into an embrace as he would have his own sons, but knew the gesture would undoubtedly be misunderstood. "Your father betrayed us both, my prince. He stole your life from you and is attempting to thrust you into an eternity that you do not want. He also misled me where you are concerned. You are not at all as you were portrayed in that letter." Elrond gestured at the discarded scroll.

"Thranduil did not betray me." The pain behind the word belied the denial. "He made me willing to serve Mirkwood the best way that I can." Legolas considered a moment. "I will concede that Thranduil may have misled you, but surely you are familiar with Mirkwood's political maneuverings."

Elrond nodded, well-pleased to see a bit of Legolas's own ironic opinions sneaking into the conversation. "I knew. I can only plead vulnerability and loneliness after Celebrian's breaking our bond. In my heart, I held some hope that someone else might want me as she did not."

"You expected your consort - a total stranger - to find you attractive, if not to hold some affection for you?"

"A foolish, unrealistic expectation, certainly."

Legolas shook his head. "Not so unrealistic, given the right prince. You needed someone more like my brother, whose attention can be led and commanded by Thranduil's suggestions, as a kitten can be led and commanded by a string."

"Strange as it may seem, I now find your refusal to be led is far more attractive than any pliable son of Thranduil's could be," Elrond confessed. "And... as painful as it is to admit, this is not the first time your father has misled me." Had Legolas known the Elf-lord better, he would have heard the ring of fury in Elrond's voice on his behalf. "It is bad enough that he would misrepresent your motives to me and force you to do the same. That your father - any father - would confine their child in a dungeon without light or hope for six weeks--"

"I am far from being a child, Lord Elrond. I could have fought and prevented my captivity."

"Why did you not?" Elrond demanded. Legolas shrugged, and the Elf-lord continued. "Was it perhaps because Thranduil sent guards against you whom you had known all of your days? Guards you could never hurt, much less truly fight?"

Legolas threw him a startled look.

"I am all too familiar with your father's methods. Thranduil knew exactly who to set against you to ensure that he achieved his aims. You can rest assured that a dungeon cell awaited you long before the door clanged shut behind you. To incarcerate one's enemies is one thing; to incarcerate one's son is quite another. What was Thranduil thinking? You may be agreeable to this alliance through heartless coercion, Legolas, but you are far from willing. Nor should you be."

"I *am* willing, else I would not be here." Exasperation tinged the Elf's tone.

"Willing!" Elrond nearly bit the word in half as he lost patience. "Let us see how willing you are."

Leaning forward, Elrond moved slowly enough so that Legolas could escape his touch. Lifting the borrowed robes, the Elf-lord laid his hand on Legolas's bare knee and felt hard muscles contract.

"Were you a stallion," Elrond murmured seductively, beginning to caress the inside of that knee with his thumb, "you would be prepared to kick me."

"Given time," Legolas whispered, "stallions can be taught that such behavior is unacceptable."

He closed his eyes when that long-fingered hand left his knee to travel further upward. His thigh was breeched, and Elrond slid his hand inward, toward that most intimate, warm, and guarded of places.

"How delightful that you are wearing nothing beneath these robes," Elrond all but purred.

Sucking in a breath, Legolas opened his eyes wide and tensed as if to bolt. Half-standing, he shoved backward against the chair, only to find it was fetched up against a bookcase. If he could have, he would have scrambled backward over it. As it was,

Legolas leaped to the side and neatly put the chair between him and the Elf-lord.

Giving a small smile, Elrond stood. "I've no doubt you've some skill as a warrior. You move like one."

Wrapping his fingers around Legolas's injured hand, he pulled -gently but incessantly, brooking no refusal. Slowly, with obvious reluctance, Legolas subsided back into the chair. Breathing hard and fast, he willed himself to submit. Leaning the back of his head against the top of the chair, Legolas stared at the beamed ceiling in a desperate attempt at detachment as Elrond stepped closer and closer, deliberately destroying the slight distance between them.

"My prince...." Gathering Legolas's damp hair on either side of his head, Elrond combed his fingers through it gently, and then began again for the sheer, sensuous joy such touching afforded. "Your hair is liquid light, Legolas. You cannot know how much I enjoy feeling it flow through my fingers."

The Elf shivered and closed his eyes, tightened his grip on the arms of the chair. Giving him silent credit for not leaping out of the chair this time, Elrond leaned down and nuzzled Legolas's temple.

"When you came to us only a few hours ago, there were braids here... and here. Earlier, you spoke of a bow," he murmured into the delicate shell of a pointed ear. "You are an archer, then?"

"Yes." Legolas did not open his eyes as Elrond's breath invaded his ear.

"And you have... some skill with knives?"

"Yes." Barely a whisper, beneath which was a shiver.

Elrond let his lips nuzzle just in front of Legolas's ear before whispering, "You are a beautiful warrior come to me then, from Mirkwood."

The lithe body was tensing again, or even more tightly. "You have called me beautiful before. In the bath."

"So I did." Elrond let the tip of his nose caress Legolas's temple. "You do not like being called beautiful?"

Turning his head to discourage the subtle touching and seductive breath tickling his ear, Legolas opened his eyes and met Elrond's gaze gravely from only a few inches away. Almost, their lips were touching. "It matters not to me if you think I am beautiful."

"I see." Cupping Legolas's jaw in the palm of his hand, Elrond murmured, "Then I shall indulge myself where your beauty is concerned and discover how soft the skin is beneath your ear."

Once that curiosity had been satisfied, Elrond let his fingers trail from Legolas's ear to his chin. "There is a dimple here... just here. I have seen glimpses of it, but it has never appeared in response to me. I should like it if, one day, you were to smile just for me. I have seen you strong and soft by turns, Legolas and I wonder, which is real? It matters a great deal to me who you are, what you like and do not like, my prince."

Legolas was gritting his teeth so hard, the Elf-lord thought he might break a molar. Every muscle was ready to fight or to flee given the slightest provocation, and Elrond wasn't certain which response he might inspire, should he pursue this quest to find out exactly how unwilling was his quarry.

"I am not your prince," said Legolas, soft and low and deadly. "Not yet."

"I have seen that look before," Elrond murmured, refusing to stop touching the younger Elf or to give ground until Legolas understood himself as well as Elrond did. "I have seen it on battlefields with Elves prepared to die rather than to surrender."

Legolas narrowed his eyes and growled softly in what Elrond assumed was agreement with those battlefield warriors.

"And so we see some spirit at last," Elrond said, offering a respectful smile before backing up a pace and nodding down at his furious victim. "I think the two of us have just illustrated very nicely the difference between an Elf who is compelled to be willing, and one who desires." Looking stern, Elrond continued, "You will never belong to me willingly, Legolas Thranduilion, regardless what your father has commanded. You do not want this, and you are not for me."

Bowing his head, Legolas spoke low and urgent. "I was unprepared for your assault, Lord Elrond. I will behave better the next time, would honor the alliance and bond with you. I *must*. We must."

Elrond sank into the nearest chair and took a long drink of the by now warm honey-wine. "Why will you not yield and give up this argument?"

"Yielding is how I entangled myself in this situation in this situation to begin with."

"And so, you learned nothing?" The Elf-lord rubbed his temple. "The day has been long, and the night deepens. I weary of this continuous challenge, approached first from one direction and then another. You must crave rest at least as much as I do, so tell me quickly and from the last direction - why do you think so desperately that we must bond in light of all your father has done to maniuplate us into doing just that?"

"Anything less, and Thranduil will assume failure," Legolas said urgently. "He will accuse you of breaking the alliance, of perhaps never having intended to keep it to begin with. He will accuse me of betraying him, of never intending to keep my word to come to Imladris and fulfill my duty to him and to Mirkwood."

"You are so certain he would blame you and not me exclusively?"

Legolas snorted. "I am the obstinate, impossible son and you have already discovered the source of my reluctance to be of service."

The admission came slowly, but Elrond had demanded the truth. Perhaps now Legolas was willing to offer it, as Elrond's methods of ensuring he received it were very much to be avoided.

"More than my father's pride is at stake," Legolas pointed out. "If we do not bond, then Mirkwood will not have what it needs in terms of food and other supplies through the winter and beyond. Mirkwood also needs help protecting itself from the dark forces gnawing at its borders."

That caught Elrond's attention. "What do you know of such dark forces?"

Legolas seemed surprised. "You ask in curiosity rather than with incredibility?"

"Not only am I the Lord of Imladris and known to be a good listener. I have traveled these lands in years past and have lived long enough to find nothing incredible," Elrond reminded him, "not even the thought that so young an Elf as yourself may be familiar with the evil we have long suspected is growing in Dol Guldur."

"I am the Elf who traveled thrice into Dol Guldur at Mithrandir's request." The words spilled out as fast as Legolas could speak now. Some sort of verbal damn seemed to have burst, with the Elf desperate for Elrond to understand and not reject his arguments out of hand, as no doubt Thranduil had rejected them. "Elrond, I have seen the Wraiths, along with others in the Dark One's employ - wolves and orcs and other creatures that I dare not name. I've no doubt his strength is growing, for I have seen it with my own eyes."

Elrond felt a sort of stunned surprise overtake him. "You were the unknown spy in Mirkwood gathering information for Mithrandir to deliver to the Council?"

"I know of no other, my lord."

Elrond eyed the slender Elf with even more respect than he'd felt before. "You continue to amaze me, Legolas. Skilled you may be with knife and bow, but those are worthless against some of the Dark Lord's foes."

Legolas shrugged. "Orcs and wolves can be killed easily with the usual skills, and Wraiths are not so very difficult to evade. They are blind at all hours of the day and night, and if you disguise your scent and learn not to succumb to the fear they inspire, it is childsplay itself to travel through the trees and evade them by not letting them catch your scent on the ground. A stone tossed into distant underbrush is enough to distract them for an hour."

Elrond shook his head in amazement. "You served all of Middle-earth thus, and yet your father is contemptuous of your efforts."

"His pride will not let him openly acknowledge the growing darkness, nor anyone's efforts against it. Yet I believe he knows it is there: witness his desperation to forge an alliance with Imladris. But such an alliance must be his own creation, else he will have none of it."

Nodding understanding, Elrond was secretly thrilled to hear Legolas drop his title and address him only by his given name once more. He dared not remark upon it, lest the Elf revert to the old, stilted formality.

"I have been offering Thranduil support since long before you were born," he pointed out. "You and I need not bond in order for Mirkwood to have the support your father craves."

"You do not understand how he sees such things." Legolas leaned forward, desperate to be heard. "Treaties can be broken, willing support can be stopped, and then Thranduil's people would suffer as well as his pride. I say again that nothing less than a bond uniting our two houses will reassure him that this alliance will not fail."

"So I must take you in a loveless bond to reassure your father that I will not shatter the treaty between us. Does that not seem extreme to you?"

"It seems a way to protect Mirkwood, to look after her people," Legolas argued earnestly. "They are important to me, Elrond, and I believe that I can best serve them in this way."

"You would do well to remember that Mirkwood will eventually pass away, as will all of Middle-earth," the Elf-lord said gently. "You and I, however, will not. We will be tied to each other for all eternity if we do what you suggest. Does that not matter to you?"

"Is it that you do not want me?" Legolas demanded, looking as if he were also losing patience with this argument. "Am I lacking in some way you have not yet revealed? Given a little time to come to know you, I am certain that I could learn to want your touch."

"Could you? Yes, I'm sure that given time you could learn to endure just about anything... except another six weeks in your father's dungeons." Elrond gave a short laugh. "Ah, Legolas, you could not misunderstand me more, were you to deliberately try. I am not certain, even now, that you are not doing so." Rising, he turned toward the terrace. "The snow has stopped falling. Come, walk with me a little."

Legolas followed as he was bidden. They walked together out onto the terrace and from there out into the garden Elrond had tended with exquisite care for many years. A cold moon was trying to peer out from scattered clouds, while Elf-song wafted from somewhere in the darkness. Pausing beside a snow-laden rose bush, Elrond shook the heavy white blanket from its branches.

"Even now, in the dead of winter, when all other life around it is sleeping, this rose tries to bud. It's bloom will know only frost and freezing for its efforts, but still, it will try." Turning to Legolas he said, "I think you are very much like this rose - so willing to throw away your eternity in a loveless bond. You were made for better things."

"I was made to serve Mirkwood."

"As I was made to serve Imladris. But Legolas, I have been caught in a sterile marriage in the past, while you have not. I know whereof I speak, and why you must be rescued from your own folly. You say that I do not want you; that is not so. From the beginning, during the fire, I was struck by your courage. Your beauty claimed me next, and I am caught in your thrall each time I see you. You are beautiful, calm and courageous when you are not afraid of me and of what I might do to you to achieve the bonding you say you want. I am attracted enough to you - for all that I have never desired to mate with a male - that I could make you mine with very little effort. I have the power to force you, after all, and you did come here to join with me. But I set love above power, which is why I will not claim you tonight, and why Thranduil and I will never agree where my bonding with you is concerned."

Legolas seemed to puzzle that out for a few minutes as they wandered in the darkness. "Are you saying that unless I come to care for you, you will not bond with me?"

"Yes, that is exactly what I mean. A bond between two Elves is meant to be forged out of love, not obligation. Is that so unbelieveable? So undesirable?" Elrond moved through the garden, Legolas at his side. "We will find another way to fulfill the alliance and placate your father."

Legolas considered his companion's words. "My father will not stand for it. I must return to Mirkwood and tell him that I have failed."

"But you have not failed. You are feeling desperation and apprehension, all wrapped around the matter of my touching you tonight. We must find a way to overcome that, and at the same time we must serve Mirkwood, you and I." Pausing on the path, he laid a hand on the Elf's shoulder. "If you cannot bear my physical touch, how do you expect to tolerate the mental and emotional touch that would follow were we to bond?"

"I was unprepared before," Legolas protested. "I am not flinching from you now."

"That is because I have assured you that I will not take you tonight. You now read my intent as nothing more than friendly solace. We are connecting as new friends, perhaps, as you sense my caring but no intimate threat and so react to none. However, were I to do this...." Sliding a hand down Legolas's arm, Elrond captured his hand, pulled him closer and leaned down until their lips were nearly touching. "If I were to try and kiss you, what wouold you do then?"

Legolas drew a deep breath. "I... would let you."

"And I would be kissing someone whose every muscle was rigid, someone who was merely enduring me." Elrond held him there for a long moment, letting the Elf feel the strength of the Elf-lord who held him, the power of his embrace and his potential desire. "I know that this holds no attraction for you, Legolas. What attraction do you think your unwillingness holds for me?"

"But you find me beautiful."

Elrond's laugh was bitter. "I find a winter rose beautiful, and such was my wife. A rainbow and a waterfall are also beautiful, but out of reach and unsatisfactory for my purposes. I find my daughter beautiful and her grand-mother, Galadriel, as well. Acknowledging beauty does not usually lead to intimacy, and it will not in this case."

Releasing Legolas, Elrond led him back to the main house.

"Together, we shall plan how to appease your father and win ourselves the time we need."

"This will not work."

"Nonsense. Trust in my wisdom and give me a few hours to think of a plan."

"As you will, Lord Elrond." Reclaiming his chair, Legolas settled into it with all the apparent weariness Elrond felt.

* * *

Staring out at the chill garden, Elrond let his mind wander over several possible plans. When finally he had settled on one and turned to sound it out with Legolas, he discovered the Elf fast asleep where he sat.

[Six weeks in a dungeon, a hurried trip here with Mithrandir, and upon his arrival he dove into a fire,] Elrond mused. [All day, he has battled to save new friends, and to say good-bye to others. And then, tonight, I tried to seduce him. No wonder he sleeps. His fatigue, at least, is honest.]

Coming to stand beside the Elf whom he was fast coming to think of as his prince, Elrond bent to implusively slide his hands beneath Legolas, to lift him into his arms. Legolas weighed far too little, and Elrond frowned to realize that his fingers wer encountering ribs with far too little flesh on them for his liking. [He needs good food, less stress, much rest,] the Elf-lord thought, [and not necessarily in that order. For now, he needs to rest in a proper bed. If he wakes in my arms, I will send him to his own chamber. If he doesn't...]

Giving a sigh, Legolas settled more deeply into the Elf-lord's embrace. His head flopped against Elrond's shoulder as the older Elf shifted him securely against his chest. This was no waking sleep; Legolas's eyes were closed tightly against any intrusion of the night.

"You're exhausted past endurance, aren't you, my friend?" Elrond murmured.

Legolas slept on. Elrond considered the situation for a short moment and then nodded, decision made. Leaving the small common area, he entered his private bedchamber to deposit Legolas gently upon his own bed. Large as it was, the bed could certainly contain an Elf-lord and his erstwhile consort. Tucking Legolas and his robes beneath the covers, Elrond then blew out the candles, undressed, and slipped in beside Legolas.

[This brave prince insists that we must bond,] Elrond reflected. [I think not, but let us see how he reacts to our sleeping together.]

It had been a very long time since Elrond had enjoyed the feel of a warm body beside his. Wrapping his arms around his oblivious bedmate, the Elf-lord tucked Legolas close against his shoulder, wrapped his arms around him, and made certain Legolas was tucked in tight. Certain that he would awake if Legolas so much as rolled over, Elrond let sleep find him as well.

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